Sabrina salmon

Cosmo Café

1000 K St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 446-9800

Thank heaven for Sabrina Lockhart. In three previous pilgrimages to K Street’s Cosmo Café, the best thing about the experience is the elegant, old-timey, tiled floor. A simple burger and Sabrina’s herb-crusted salmon salad lift Cosmo out of the cellar.

Been to Cosmo Café six times in total, twice before it opened for fundraisers, one for the Music Circus. The restaurant, the latest venture by Randy Paragary and executive chef Kurt Spataro, is spacious, the booths comfortable, the cosmopolitans conducive. For such a high ceiling, the place isn’t real noisy. And the blending of the different dirt tones in the paneling, booths and floor is very nifty indeed.

Off-putting is the rogue’s gallery of political caricatures on the wall facing 10th Street (although it’s fun to poke fun at the ones that don’t look like who they are supposed to be). Before the restaurant opened, Dianne Feinstein was captioned Dianne “Finestein.” On one visit to Cosmo, my cosmopolitan companion, H.D. Palmer, says the concept reminds him of the Palm Restaurant in Washington, D.C., which, like the original Palm in New York and every subsequent one, has walls crawling with caricatures.

Mea culpa: All visits are lunch. No late-night fare. No small plates. No dinner. With that caveat, up until Sabrina, the food—and service—are uneven. The gaffe here is New York deli, right down to the Thomas Kemper bottled sodas at $4 a throw. But the only thing that says the pastrami on rye is something special is the $11.50 price tag. (Go catty-corner across K and 10th to Bud’s Buffet for a bigger, better and more economical version.)

On another visit, the ham and Swiss is pronounced by my co-diner as “available elsewhere for just as good at half the price.” Based on the pastrami experience, a plausible assessment. The coleslaw is kinda runny and bland. The mixed-green option as a sandwich side is uninspired—mixed greens with oil and vinegar. Throw in some pine nuts or currants or dried cranberries or something.

Another time, a waiter touts the soup special—“they always do soups well here”—but admits never trying it. To his credit, he disappears into the kitchen and does so. The beef ragu on the $17.50 fresh egg fettuccine—as opposed to the stale egg fettuccine?—tastes like pot roast and not nearly as good as that made in the Lucas home prior to the dawning of the Vegetarian Epoch.

In the plus column, H.D. digs his $11.50 roast beef sandwich with the red onion jam, bleu cheese and watercress—a creative combo. The Kemper orange soda kicks. And the chopped chicken salad—salami, provolone, olives, romaine, radicchio, red-wine vinaigrette—is meritorious. But, overall, other than the apoplexy the tabs bring to the SN&R accountants, so?

Then, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in the original and Harrison Ford in the remake, comes Sabrina. Eager to find something to sing about after a trio of stumblings, the safest bet seems the Niman burger. A monstrous smothering of caramelized onions is requested but does not materialize. Sabrina, a new mom and press secretary to a GOP state senator, picks the salmon salad. It’s a stunner. It’s what cooking is supposed to be: attracting opposites attractively, a synergy of complementary tastes greater than the sum of its parts.

Again, the price issue—$14—but the tart Dijon, sweet beet chunks, endive, fennel slivers and bits of avocado combine famously with the citrus dressing and the not-in-the-least-bit dry salmon. As confessed before, there’s never been a beet I didn’t like, and I’m a fennel freak, too, so the dish is already on a winning track from the get-go.

The Cosmo, with the theater next door, is a damn sight better than a gutted Woolworth’s, albeit one with a killer lunch counter in its prime. Uneven but still appealing.